Friday, October 1, 2010

A failure of imagination

ImaginationWhen a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.

When I first began going to scientific conferences to present my graduate work, I could always count on questions from grumpy older scientists.

These would be distinguished folks who remembered a similar paper from 40 years ago, a case report that disproved my thesis, an alternative hypothesis that they hatched over sherry with another grumpy elder.  It’s a tricky confrontation, because I can’t ignore them, can’t take them head-on, and often can’t understand what they’ve mumbled. Over the years, I’ve perfected a two—step deflection of a beaming embrace of the idea, followed by an invitation to discuss it over coffee.

I’d note, however, that this technique did not work when my thesis advisor jumped up during my Defense to erase a few equations and propose an alternate idea in front of my Examining Committee.

Now that I’m birch-bark blond and over-50, I’m trying not to fall prey to the disease (or at least to be constructive when I’m tempted).

Still, I genuinely do see old ideas come around again, and again, at scientific conferences.  In the coffee sessions this week, a few of us wondered why.  The easy answer is that these examples are genuinely good ideas that solve significant problems, and are thus discovered anew by each generation.  Alternatively,

Technology lagged the concept: wireless data visualization had to wait for 3G cell phones.

Technology led the science: patients could be cooled long before we were sure it did any good.

It takes time for an idea to find it’s audience.  Conventional wisdom holds that a medical device can get to idea to market within five years.  But it takes at least another five for the funding-study-publication cycle to generate a good literature base from multiple authors. Adoption into Guidelines and reimbursement codes could take another five.  During that decade–long process from idea to standard of care, lots of other people will start down the same path independently.

Triangle ShapesBut the most frustrating reason is a simple one: Failure of Imagination.

I know so many instances where good ideas, working in prototype, delighting clinicians, were not pursued because senior managers couldn’t back the project.  Lack of understanding (of the innovation or the market), competition for resources, ‘making the tough decisions’ in favor of safe alternatives all contributed to the problem.  But it’s corrosive: in the worst cases, I’ve lost not just the project, but talent as the whole team faltered, then departed.

At worst, management keeps a research group of bright people only as an operating reserve, never intending productive output.  ‘Let’ them pursue personal projects in the off-periods, then throw them at problems in times of need.

I have, in retrospect, left jobs over chronic Failure of Imagination, never for anything else.  It just makes life impossible, no matter what the mission statement says.

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

quotes from Arthur Clarke, Profile of the Future.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Scenes from Portrush

‘Enjoying a few days of remarkably sunny weather along the north Irish coast.  It’s a beautiful area and a good chance to explore both the new geography and some new ideas.

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Portrush Ireland 15

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Portrush Ireland 08

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Configuring an idea(l) conference

altI was talking with friends the other night about what makes a good research conference.  There was a time when it was a big conference, filled with important people and companies all showing off their latest findings and innovations.  It was a distant city, a nice hotel, good dinners, and visits by the corporate brass.

It does seem like a tender age.

These days, I really enjoy a smaller gathering, one where there’s a singe track of presentations, a limited audience, immersion in a topic, close discussions of creative ideas, promises to follow up on collaborative projects.  It’s more of a retreat, things to see and discover together, shared meals, an excursion or two.

The big conferences have their place, but I really don’t learn as much or get time to talk about ideas with others.

altI’m headed up to Ireland for a few days for such an event, ‘looking forward to the time away (even though I have to finish a grant application during the evenings).  The organizers have a good sense of how to assemble a group: they get a good mix of young and older investigators, people actually doing work, and mix the theoretical/technical sorts with the practicing/clinical ones.  There are a few repeat members, a few industry folks, a core focus for everyone to put their heads around.

It reminds me of the times running a research group, a lot of the same considerations lead to a lot of the same solutions.  You want to gather together a group of smart folks with different perspectives who can work together around a common cause.  Flatten the hierarchy, celebrate successes at every level, and keep the networks humming.

When it works, it’s really one of life’s delights.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Building towards social networks

Social Media

I was talking with a colleague today who is preparing to take on a new role as editor of a bimonthly (every two months, vs. semimonthly, twice a month) journal.  It’s been run as a traditional media product up to this point, paper stories mailed to subscribers.  The new management wants to create a more colorful and relevant publication, improving quality and involving readers more directly.  New media ideas such as online forums and social extensions are suggested.

 It seems to me, I started, leaning back as though preparing to light a pipe…Cambridge casts it’s spell…

Model 1It seems to me that the publication is a static entity at this point.  Every two months it touches it’s subscribers, then goes quiet for another two months.  Simply putting the journal online won’t change that: the content will still only be updated infrequently and there’s no motivation to look in.

Model 2Similarly, it seems like your not ready to push the online presence into social media, where your subscribers interact with one another.  There’s nothing for them to talk about, no community or tribe that draws them together.  Seeding a forum with surveys, provocative letters to the editor, and event notices may generate heat but not the sort of quality and light that the publication wants to build.

I think that there’s an intermediate step that needs to happen, creating dynamic content. 

First, the journal needs to offer simpler content that is updated more frequently.   Pre-publication, post story ideas, articles that didn’t make the cut to print, pointers to relevant news and events.  Post-publication, post article updates, links to enhanced content, audio or video follow-ups.

Second, offer interactive features.  Make the author available for discussion on-line, invite guest specialists to post perspectives and commentary for questions or comment, offer ways to get involved or to share stories within a short, moderated format that can be summarized in newsletters.

Third, make the subscribers special.   When an institution is featured, add special offers for admission, access to programs, or advance notice of events.  Collate information of interest to them; invite contributions and opportunities to make their special interest into a special feature.

Model 3In effect, the dynamic content draws together the writers and specialists with the subscribers and naturalists.  Once people are engaged, then they may be ready to interact.

Our local Meetup groups held a ‘Social media and Startups’ session recently,  emphasizing the need to see past the tools to the goal: creating self-organized communities of like-minded people.  Seth Godin made the same point in his discussions of Tribes, and I’ve seen it work (sometimes) on LinkedIn.

18 uses of social crm

I think that the benefits of social networks, and their desirability as mediums for branding and marketing, are now  well understood (above). You have to learn to leverage the new medium.

But I think I’ve also learned that a growing community with vigorous conversation doesn’t start with a Facebook page.  Rather, it has to start with frequent, relevant, interactive content that generates (and shows) interest and engages audiences. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Op de pier, dicht bij de zee.

Mondrian Pier and Ocean 1915

Today’s art is Mondrain’s Ocean and Pier / Composition 10, one of many works that he did exploring this theme.  The jutting pier is represented by  the verticals at the lower center, while the texture of the water is implied by the contrasting reflections around it, receding to the horizon, with sky above.

altI visited the pier in Brighton today, taking time off after a visit to the microbiology labs at the University.   It’s a structure in the grand old style of boardwalks and dance halls, with  wooden slats and iron supports, the sea swaying and heaving green beneath the walkwayss.  The promenade is lined with shops selling sweets and trinkets, canvas and wood beach chairs, blue and white stripes mirroring the sky, for watching the ocean.  A radio station plays an rotation of memories from a DJ booth at the end of the pier, close by the thrill rides.  The pressure to visit MooMoo’s for a MilkShake is relentless..

It’s a relaxed, lazy place, similar to the ones vanishing from beaches around the world.  Navy Pier in Chicago (below, left) was rehabilitated, it’s now a vast family-safe pedestrian walkway.  Brighton was conserved, a modern day Vasa, still retaining it’s charms despite the age of the wood.

Chicago Navy pier  Scheveningen 13alt  alt

I was trying to remember any Dutch equivalents, then hit upon a sunny day spent at Scheveningen when I first came to the Netherlands.  A broad beach, a flat ocean, a long boardwalk stretching fingers towards the grey and yellow horizon.  Scheveningen is a bit between, glass enclosed and updated in spots, vestiges of the carnival heritage poking through.

I suspect there are, or once were, similar great piers extending into the sea all along the coasts of Europe.  Wikipedia keeps a list, but the sparseness suggests that, beyond a few in Belgium and the one in the Netherlands, these artifacts have all but vanished from the Continent. 

And there’s no hint of what pier inspired Mondrian, watching light flicker on water, fingers twitching over his canvas.  No clue if it was a sunny day or grey, observed from canvas chair or a lazy lean over a rail. ‘just a figurative sketch, ever in the present moment of people strolling the planks above the sea.